By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Comedian arrested for obscenity.
Lenny Bruce (Bernie Travis) is a struggling nightclub comedian looking to try to differentiate himself from the others. Tired of doing stand-up at rundown bars where he pretty much is nothing more than a MC introducing the next act he decides to start telling jokes each time he gets onstage and then when that gets a few laughs he begins making them edgier by sprinkling in elements of sex, politics, and religion. This gets him the much desired attention and gigs in bigger venues. However, not everyone likes his brand of humor and when he offends a group of elites at a show in Philadelphia they go on the offense. First they try having him arrested for illegal drug possession and when that fails they go after him for his controversial material where he gets arrested onstage by the police in San Francisco for using profanity during his act. Lenny fights the case in court, but finds that his once blossoming career has dried up as no one will hire him for fear of controversy and with everyone turning against him, even his own agent (Wynn Irwin) and girlfriend (Courtney Simon) he falls into a deep depression.
This obscure, low budget film does start-out rocky featuring vaudeville-like court proceeding skit that attempts to make fun of the trial, but only succeeds at looking dumb and amateurish. The opening credits are shown over a toilet bowl before being ‘flushed’ away, which some may find innovative and creative while others will consider it tacky. There’s also a lot of extraneous footage, particularly at the start, showing Lenny aimlessly walking down the street. While this helps to give a good visual ambiance of the period it certainly does not progress the story.
What I did like was the way we see Lenny go from the bottom up to the top versus already starting it with him famous and in trouble. While it’s been many years, more like a few decades, since I’ve seen Bob Fosse’s better known Lenny, which starred Dustin Hoffman, I did find that element, where Lenny’s humble beginnings weren’t shown, to be a detraction. This film sticks you inside the seedy clubs that he played at and keeps you there. You connect with Lenny and his feelings of being trapped in these places and his urgency to doing whatever he could to stand-out and move-up. You also come to understand his dark humor as anyone who would have to work at these places, and deal with the many drunks that he did, would turn edgy and sarcastic as well.
Bernie Travis, who was a stand-up comedian in his own right, and died at a young age that wasn’t much older than Bruce’s when he died, gives an interesting performance. Some say Cliff Gorman, who played Bruce in the Broadway version, did the best, but Travis comes close. You definitely sense the comedian’s ambition and his annoyance with others. The fact that he’s abrasive and not entirely likable is a good thing as I’ve heard many comedians, even the famous and well-liked ones, can be jerks offstage as there’s so much pressure to be funny that in order to release the tension they can sometimes be unpleasant in private and this film successfully brings out that dynamic particularly when Lenny goes onstage and angrily lashes out at the obscenity charges in a rage-filled rant that’s genuinely electrifying and leaves those in the audience with their mouths agape.
Producer Marvin Worth, who owned the rights to two books that Bruce had written, sued this film upon its release for copyright infringement, which limited its exposure and kept it out of most theaters. When the Bob Fosse movie, which was produced by Worth, came out four years later, this film got totally eclipsed and largely forgotten, which is a shame. Not everything works, but it does have a few memorable moments including what looks to be unscripted, filmed interviews of actual potential jurors, some of whom are quite elderly, who get asked what words they deem to be ‘obscene’ and their responses are priceless.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: September 10, 1970
Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes
Director: Herbert S. Altman
Studio: Superior Pictures